Government formation post-election - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

2  Changes from the 2010 election

Length of negotiation period

5. The length of the negotiation period after the 2010 election was relatively short. It took just five days for the outline of the coalition agreement to be agreed and thirteen days for the final programme for Government to be released. Dr Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu, of the University of Oxford, told us that this "compared to an average of thirty-nine days for the rest of Western Europe."[3]

6. There are some reasons why the negotiation period may be longer in 2015. Professor Robert Hazell, from University College London told us:

    [I]t is very likely to take longer than five days before the negotiations are concluded […] there are likely to be more players in the game this time round. […] it is very likely that the parliamentary parties will take a closer interest and will expect to be consulted more closely before they allow their party leaders to sign up to any deal. […] [W]e forget that in 2010 the agreement reached after five days was not formally the coalition agreement that became the programme for Government.[4]

7. Dr Catherine Haddon from the Institute for Government argued that the length of the negotiation period could be longer in 2015 compared with 2010. She told us:

    [C]ertainly media and political expectations and the public's expectations may now have changed to allow for a bit of a longer period than the pressure we saw last time round.[5]

8. In the event of an election result which delivers no overall majority, negotiations on government formation may not result in a coalition. If agreement cannot be reached between parties which have sufficient members to reach a majority in the House of Commons, a party or parties may reach agreement on forming an administration on the basis of support from other parties on matters of confidence and supply.

9. The public should expect that the negotiation period for the formation of a potential coalition Government or confidence and supply arrangement will be longer in 2015 than in 2010.

The effect of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

10. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has meant that for almost five years the Government and the Civil Service have known the date of the 2015 General Election. The Institute for Government told us that this meant that:

    [R]estrictions on government activity should be more of a theoretical than a practical problem. […] the government and the civil service have been able to plan ahead to avoid any decisions both during the campaign and in the weeks afterwards.[6]

11. It will of course not be possible to schedule all major decisions to be taken by a caretaker administration to fall outside the process of government formation: unexpected issues may require an immediate decision by Ministers, and while a government is being formed Ministers may be required to attend and take decisions at scheduled or unscheduled international meetings. For instance, shortly after the 2010 election, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon Alistair Darling MP, attended an urgent meeting of EU finance ministers to discuss the bailout for the euro, and committed the UK to the deal.[7]

12. Asked whether the Act had helped with Government planning for the 2015 election, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, told us:

    It has certainly helped to plan when the election is going to be so you work out at what point during the five years certain things can happen. I do not think it has materially helped in the period after, at the start of a new five-year term, because whether or not you have uncertainty depends on the outcome of the election. In many scenarios, you may not have an uncertainty.[8]

13. While we recognise that, in a number of scenarios, after a general election there may not be uncertainty over the nature of the continuing or incoming administration, opinion polling in the last months of this Parliament has consistently indicated the likelihood of an election result with no overall majority. We are therefore disappointed that the opportunity provided by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has not been used by the Government and the Civil Service to plan better for the potential of a period of negotiations immediately following the General Election. An opportunity to ensure that as far as possible key decisions do not have to be taken by a caretaker administration during a period of government formation appears to have been missed. We recommend that in future the Civil Service seeks as far as possible to schedule key decisions for Ministers until after the end of any likely period of Government formation after an election.

Consultation within political parties

14. Given the likelihood that the 2015 election will not deliver a clear majority to a single party, there will need to be negotiations between the parties before a new government can be formed. We considered the processes that the three largest parties in the current Parliament, who all participated in negotiations following the 2010 election, had in place to manage the process. We focussed in particular on the processes by which the party leaders and negotiating teams consulted with their parliamentary parties, recognising that in the absence of such processes any agreement might lack legitimacy within the parties that have committed to it and might therefore be unstable.

15. In May 2010 only the Liberal Democrats had a clear process by which the approval of the party was sought for the agreement that had been reached. Annette Brooke, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party, and Baroness Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrats, indicated that, because of the way the Liberal Democrats were constituted, there had been a steady process of consultation through the negotiation process. The party's Federal Executive and Federal Policy Committee had made clear to the negotiating team the sort of approach they would like to see adopted. Subsequently, the parliamentary party convened in Westminster on the Saturday following the election and met regularly until the initial coalition agreement was approved by the Federal Executive on Tuesday 11 May. On Saturday 16 May, the party held a special conference in Birmingham at which the coalition agreement was approved.

16. The Labour and Conservative parties were seemingly less well-equipped to deal with the negotiation process. Mr Graham Brady MP, the chair of the Conservative Party's 1922 Committee, a committee of all backbench Conservative MPs, said that the "circumstances took everyone by surprise" and conceded that "our institutional framework was simply not there".[9] The chairman of the Committee had not stood for re-election and there had been no procedures in place to ensure continuity until a new chairman had been selected. The Labour Party had no mechanism in place to ensure consultation between the negotiating team and front bench and parliamentary party and national executive.[10]

17. It is clear that those parties which participated in the negotiation process last time have reflected on and learnt from the experience. Labour and the Conservatives have acknowledged the need for greater internal consultation during any negotiations. Labour have updated their standing orders to require the party leader to consult with both the parliamentary party and the party's national executive committee.[11] John Cryer MP, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), also noted that the power of the PLP's ruling body, the backbench-dominated Parliamentary Committee, to call a meeting at any time could be used to ensure any proposals were properly discussed.[12] Mr Brady made clear that the 1922 Committee was now properly prepared for engagement with negotiations after the election: arrangements had been made to ensure that there was a body that could communicate the views of Conservative backbench MPs to the leadership throughout any negotiations. The Liberal Democrats have refined their consultation mechanisms, trying to streamline the process without sacrificing representativeness. The party bodies previously involved now nominate smaller reference groups to liaise with the negotiating team.[13]

18. It is not for us to specify the precise mechanisms by which parties should approach any negotiations over forming a government. They are structured differently, and the detail of any consultation and subsequent ratification will reflect that. As we indicated in our earlier report on government formation, it is for the political parties to decide if they wish to review their internal procedures. We are pleased to note that they all appear to agree on the principle that there should be consultation throughout the process.

19. We welcome the fact that parties involved in negotiations in 2010 have made formal changes to their internal processes so that there can be greater consultation with Members of Parliament and, perhaps equally importantly, all three parties seem to acknowledge the need for consultation on any agreement to which their party wishes to commit them.

3   Dr Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu (GFE 02) para 2 Back

4   Q2 [Prof Robert Hazell] Back

5   Q3 [Dr Catherine Haddon] Back

6   Institute for Government (GFE 03), para 7 Back

7   'Osborne urged Darling to opt out of EU bail-out', The Telegraph, 1 July 2011 Back

8   Q109 [Sir Jeremy Heywood] Back

9   Qq144-147 [Mr Graham Brady MP] Back

10   Q77 [John Cryer MP] Back

11   Q77 [John Cryer MP] Back

12   Q78 [John Cryer MP] Back

13   Q61 [Baroness Brinton] Back

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Prepared 26 March 2015